Producer Carl Dudley took to the streets and workplaces of Los Angeles to make this despairing trilogy of accidents and their devastating effects on railroad workers and families. The Days of Our Years shows a landscape full of risks and dangers, a world where something can happen every day to careless people, where those innocent of responsibility suffer the most Ñ a world, in fact, remarkably similar to ours. The menaces that its characters face daily are not age-old quarrels between clans, ethnic groups or nations, but risks faced by working people on the job. The paradox of this film is that although it was made by a railroad company and expresses highly specific corporate interests, it's also rooted in a working-class milieu and reflects this throughout every scene.
First things first. God is the ultimate authority. "It is written in the Old Testament: to each of us this allotment of years. The days of our years are three score and ten." The film opens with a choir, a church, a minister and a Biblical quote.
In the age-old tradition of holding workers (rather than management or the makers of machines) responsible for accidents, this film shows stories of people who are "the victims of themselves." "I know the road does everything in its power to prevent accidents," says the minister/narrator, and saddles these workingmen with complete responsibility for the risks they face. This is a common theme of safety films, which combine a healthy degree of corporate self-interest with an occasional concern for the well-being of workers and consumers.
If we're not to sell this film short, though, we should look beyond its sleazier side. When ephemeral films channel to us evidence of yesterday's everyday life and culture, evidence we'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, they're really at their best; and this is a great example. The Days of Our Years transcends its limited mandate to present a portrait of a white working-class Los Angeles, a culture which has now pretty much vanished. This L.A. is populated by working people who live near the railroad freight terminal and repair shops in places like Commerce, Vernon and Bell. Joe Tindler, a road electrical foreman is in love with Helen, a waitress at a local luncheonette; they're saving up to get married. Two buddies on a yard train crew (George Price and Fred Bellows) plan to retire together and travel the world. And Charlie O'Neill is excited beyond words at the imminence of a new baby. These are pretty basic aspirations: marriage, a new home, retirement "after forty-two years of good, honest work," a new baby. In each case the wish is not granted because of an accident. This is not the California of 77 Sunset Strip and the Cleavers; it's a working-class community resembling the urban Northeast rather than the suburbs and beach cities of southern California. Its people live more traditional lives and work at jobs that have been in existence for over a century, and the film shows this with skill and precision.
The strength of the film lies in the details. When we're introduced to Joe Tindler, he's shaving his neck in his bachelor room. Keep an eye on that neck. Helen looks into a polished toaster and fantasizes her future with Joe, including the purchase of that "Plan 5 Model Home." The Prices and Bellows sit planning their retirement at a picnic table covered with National Geographics opened to ads for Hawaiian vacations. Larry Bellows pulls down a windowshade as he changes clothes, and George Price sees this as a rejection and rebuke. Saddest of all, young welder Charlie O'Neill, newly blinded and wearing Roy Orbison shades, gropes around his baby son's crib in search of a toy locomotive.
We mentioned the Biblical allusions. There is something almost scriptural in the rhythm and simplicity of the narration. "George tried to go to Fred Bellows' funeral, but the doctor said no. You don't walk around two days after a heart attack. But they couldn't keep him away from the window." The minister/narrator has almost complete control over the narration; everything is voiceover except for the screams of the victims.
A profound contradiction embraces most safety films, a mismatch between ends and means. Quite often the most effective accident reduction strategy for a filmmaker seems to be to present dramatized accidents. When audiences see careless, pain and suffering and their devastating effects, it's thought they'll act more safely. But does it really work that way? Simply examine your feelings as you sit and watch a film like The Days of Our Years. If you are a typical spectator, what you're doing is really waiting for the accident to happen. This is the payoff, the gratification, the closure. I'd argue that this process is distracting enough to weaken, maybe even crowd out, the intended message. In fact, The Days of Our Years builds up to the climactic accidents with great skill and drama, and it does this not once, but three times over.
Some safety films employ unorthodox measures to get the viewer's attention or focus on the risks and pitfalls of ordinary behavior. There's nothing radical about The Days of Our Years; it's simply an extremely well-made film pitting the risk of life-disrupting accidents against closely held values of ritual, community and family succession. "Let not man by his thoughtlessness diminish the blessings of the Lord." It's like a safety shoe you put on to protect your foot.
Safety Danger Lurks Safety films Safety education Union Pacific Railroad (sponsor) Railroads Railroads (accidents) Surrealism Narratives Stories Ministers Workers (railroad) Workers (shop) Workers (welders) Welding Romance Love Workers (waitresses) Marriage Fantasies Houses and homes (new) Houses and homes (model) Suburbia Fireplaces Couples (young) Accidents Irresponsibility Negligence Driving Automobiles (accidents) Collapses Heart attacks Trains Switchmen Railroads (yards) Windowshades Sons Rebukes Hostility Anger Pregnancy Childbirth Fatherhood Blindness Eyes (blinded) Visual effects (eyes being blinded by torch) Torches Babies Fathers (blind) Cigars